Let's face it, silk has quite a reputation. The mere mention of silk elicits 'Ooohs' and 'Ahhs,' and not just because it is the softest, lightest, and most breathable natural fabric on the market. Silk's status is well deserved, and originates from thousands of years of representing wealth and power. Silk is the centerpiece of countless myths and legends, as well as real history, including lending its name the most important overland trading route in human history, the Silk Road, that linked the Far East with Europe for hundreds of years.
The exact date silk came into widespread use is not known, although according to archaeological evidence, it was certainly well established by 3000 BC. According to legend, around 2600 BC the wife of the Yellow Emperor, Lady Hsi-Ling-Shih, discovered the mystery of silk when a cocoon fell into her cup of tea and unraveled into silk thread. She is also traditionally credited with developing techniques for raising and harvesting silkworms, as well as the loom, and has even been deified as Seine-Than, or 'The Goddess of Silk Worms.' Regardless of whether this is historically accurate, it emphasizes two important points: by that time silk was already firmly integrated into Chinese culture, and it was so highly regarded that an empress-goddess was associated with it. In these early days, silk was only available to Chinese royalty and their courts.
Silk production is a process that demands exacting attention to detail, and as such was especially difficult, increasing silk's value. As the centuries passed and production techniques improved and expanded, silk slowly made its way into the wardrobe of more and more levels of Chinese society. It was still very highly prized, though, and was even used along with gold as a form of currency for payment of taxes and in other trading, with the length of the silk determining its value.
As foreign trade in silk increased, the Chinese regimes recognized their unique knowledge of silk production, and established severe (capital) punishments for anyone revealing the secrets of sericulture to outsiders. The Chinese monopoly of the silk market lasted for a long time, further increasing the intrinsic value of this simple material in foreign markets. For example, a tunic of the finest silk could cost a Roman soldier his entire annual salary.
Eventually, of course, the secrets of the silk worm found their way outside of China, first to Korea and Japan, and then slowly westward through India and the Middle East, and finally to Europe. There are many interesting legends around how the 'secret got out.' One holds that a Chinese princess smuggled cocoons with her when she married a foreign prince. Another holds that Byzantine monks hid the cocoons in their walking staffs at the request of Emperor Justinian. The Silk Road, as an established route for trade between Europe, the Near East, and the Far East, had created such a demand for the material that in the end, it actually aided in the revelation of the secrets of production to outsiders.
Over the centuries, other countries have become world class producers of silk, but China has regained its historical place and today is responsible for about half of the silk made in the world.